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Missing: Character History

So, I just read an 80-page novella in which the VPC is human, but has to infiltrate a vampire’s club in order to get some blood.  He’s not happy about the idea, but for survival’s sake, he has to go on despite whatever trouble lies ahead.

The author started the story in the right spot: the hero got in the bar and immediately ran into trouble.  “Great,” I thought, “here’s someone who knows how to work character history into the story, not give it all at once in an info-dump.”  I trusted the writer to tell a good story and read on with confidence.

The problem is, the expected history never came!

I never learned the character’s background after his immediate survival need was fulfilled; the author never told us anything about his background until the end of the story.  As a result, the character didn’t read as a unique person with a unique history — he was just a guy in a life-or-death situation with a tendency to make jokes under pressure.

Since this was a romance, the story had him fall in love with the vampire leader and happen to be the vampire’s fated mate.  Fine, but since I knew nothing about the character, his history, or his attitudes about life, I couldn’t really bond with him and get into the story, through him.  When something significant happened, I had to wonder: What does this mean to him?  What was his life experience prior to the beginning of the story that would influence his decisions?  Without that stuff, the character felt like a construct that was “born on the first page,” as the saying goes.

A character’s life experience and direction shouldn’t be a mystery.

History makes a character real to the reader.  Personal history — our memory — is an essential part of being human and colors our every thought and action.  We are creatures of time, such that no adult can look at an object without thinking of its past, present, and future, even if it’s just a paperclip or crumpled-up Pepsi can.  History — life experience — gives our actions meaning.  In a story, a character’s motivation and attitude comes out of his history.

If a character has no attitude born of his fictional life experience, or his “reason why” remains a mystery, we will never be able to feel like we really “know” him.  We won’t be able to lock onto his rules and know what’s meaningful to him, what he’ll do in certain situations, what he’ll choose.  If we know how to root for the character because of his past experiences, we can bond more with the character, which gives us a more vivid story experience.

History doesn’t mean flashbacks or info-dumps.

In novellas, writers rightfully avoid any mass info-dumps or the dreaded backstory.  Most of the writers in my group are rigorous about trimming the backstory and info-dump fat because they’re mostly short story writers.  There just isn’t enough time when you only got 80 pages.  But you don’t have to devote whole blocks of text to explain a character’s timeline.

History is more than a story that happened in a character’s past — it touches a character’s current thoughts and actions.  For example, let’s say your character was arrested for theft when she were 12 and got sent to a youth correction facility, where she was psychologically tortured by the sadistic, warped social workers.  Even years later, she’d be jumping every time you saw anyone in uniform.  Unless she had amnesia or repressed memories, her time in the kiddie clink would contribute something to what she thinks about and does.  It contributes significantly to the way she views her world — becomes part of her information filtration system.

In the novella that spawned this post, there is a good reason why the character needs to drink blood, and there was no good reason for the author to hide it.  The way he didn’t think of the traumatic event (subject in an experiment) that significantly changed his life was unnatural — there was a hole where his life experience should be!

I thought it was a decent story that could have been solidly good.  The character history’s absence was conspicuous, and because the writer didn’t want to think about it, a lot of opportunities got lost for deepening the bond with the character and giving the reader a better story experience.

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